Keeping web access open
The US is spearheading a campaign to ensure that all the rights an individual has in the real world should hold too in the virtual world, writes KARLIN LILLINGTON
WHEN IT COMES to the internet, Thomas O Melia takes the same stance as his boss: the internet, he says, is too important for its management to be left to the control of individual governments.
A view many on the net would support, of course. But when your boss is US secretary of state Hillary Rodham Clinton, and you strongly make such statements at diplomatic events such as the recent Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe conference in Dublin, the message has a particular heft and is heard internationally.
Melia, whose mouthful of an official title is deputy assistant secretary, Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights and Labor, US Department of State, is leading an ongoing US effort to get the 56 member states of the OSCE to agree to a statement recognising that all the rights an individual has in the real world should hold too in the virtual world.
This connects directly to the notion that governments should not have the right to micro-manage the net by shutting off citizen access or trying to limit what citizens may say using various internet-reliant communication technologies.
Statement documents issued by the OSCE have to be agreed by full consensus, making it tortuous to phrase them in such a way that they get full buy-in. Already, one attempt has failed to pass the US-sponsored OSCE document on online rights.
In an interview on his Dublin visit, Melia notes that while theoretically, general human and freedom of speech rights already do pertain online, many states still will not officially acknowledge this, leaving a grey area in which some restrict or close down online expression by humans rights activists and the media.
The US has formally reintroduced their proposal, and is looking for co-sponsors. The US position is such a stance doesn’t change people’s rights, but reaffirms them in an online context.
“This is where the consensus hurdle exists,” notes Melia. “We didn’t achieve in Vilnius. And some EU countries didn’t join in, that you think would have.”
He said he feels that it’s time for a reconsideration of the proposal, especially as the Irish government, which currently holds the chair of the OSCE, chose internet freedom as the theme for its conference.
The conference – an Irish idea to change the usual closed-door, statement-filled meeting structure of OSCE events – was full of feisty exchanges between panelists, and panelists and audience, in some cases with online activists publicly challenging their own governments.
Such debates, and the ability to air differences and concerns between governments at meetings, is central to the importance of the OSCE, he says.
“What happens in each member state is of interest to all of us. The OSCE represents a hybrid – of noninterference in sovereign states, and taking an interest in the treatment of people in sovereign states. In other words, it’s okay for us to talk about those issues. This document would further modernise and update in the 21st century, that these fundamental freedoms are everybody’s business – and for that matter, the business of civil liberties activists in our own country.”
Some of the limitations of the existing agreement and its failure to specifically mention internet freedoms were demonstrated during the conference, when one panelist, OSCE representative on freedom of the media, Dunja Mijatovic, came under criticism from some members.